Book project: “Delicious: A History of Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) and Umami, the Fifth Taste”
My book project examines the flavour enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG) as a pharmacologically active substance that enhances our sensory perception of savoury foods. In the last 108 years, MSG has gotten around. It is the star in Doritos, instant ramen noodles, Campbell’s soup, and thousands of other processed and prepared foods. Since the late-1960s, it has been alleged by some critics to have a toxic effect on bodies, but has more recently been discussed by chefs, food scientists, and foodies in the celebratory tones of gastronomy, food science, and taste. It has since the early 2000s been buttressed by the discovery of the molecular mechanism for a fifth taste sensation called umami (Japanese for “savoury deliciousness”)–the taste MSG’s inventor claimed the additive conferred more than a century ago (Ikeda 1909; Chaudhuri, Landin, and Roper 2000).
I explore how MSG explodes our categories of food, drug, and toxin. I trace the additive’s journey from Japan and across the globe, and I analyze how it has been fetishized, racialized, and vilified. I consider MSG as a focus point for connecting questions of authenticity and risk in foods; for connecting the state of knowledge in sensory science, neuroscience, and food design & marketing; and for thinking about how our food systems organize not only ways of being human (class, ethnicity, region), but the ways of being of creatures large and small (e.g. the laboratory mice of food safety and nutrition studies, or the farmed bacteria who produce the glutamic acid we eat when we eat MSG).